Politics at Topeka, Part Four

William Phillips

William Phillips

Parts 1, 2, 3

With the issue of restricting suffrage to only white men and Indians who adopted their habits resolved, the Topeka Convention got into more serious matters still. Back at Big Springs at the start of September, almost the entire convention voted in favor of a black law for Kansas. This law would exclude free blacks from the territory. As the free state men wrote their constitution, the black law naturally came up again. William Phillips reports that

The article relative to the exclusion of free negroes, called the “black-law,” created considerable discussion. Many wished to include it in the constitution. This resolution was one of the humbugs, or tests, which decide nothing, while they create a party. In deciding upon its merits neither Legislature nor people took a true or comprehensive view of the question.

Where does genuine racism end and party interest begin? The black law certainly had partisan aspects. Many westerners demanded it as the price of their cooperation with the more egalitarian New England contingent. However, political interest rarely comes entirely independent of genuine belief.

To have a community of white people only is certainly desirable; but, instead of discussing this in connection with its comparative justice and humanity, the whole issue turned thus. An advocate of the measure would get a man by the button-hole, and say:

“Look here,-this black-law is a great thing. They accuse us Kansas folks of being abolitionists. Now we an’t abolitionists, are we?”

“No SIR!”

“No, sir-ee-I know we an’t; so the thing is to vote for the ‘black-law,’ and that will prove we an’t ‘abolitionists’.”

So Kansas voted for the “black-law” to demonstrate that she was not an “abolitionist.”

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

Phillips’ invented dialog eschewing abolition reflects political interests. Disclaiming any abolitionism went on at Big Springs as well. We can understand that as party-building and a demonstration of the relative strength of the more western, more intensely racist contingent. It also might serve their purposes when the free state constitutions reached Kansas. A black law could shield them against some Southern fears that they would come into the Union as another Massachusetts. But by his own admission he finds an all-white Kansas preferable. Such laws had passed in western states in recent memory. In Race & Politics: Bleeding Kansas and the Coming of the Civil War, James Rawley has a New York Times reporter observe that westerners

are terribly frightened at the idea of being overrun by negroes. They hold to the idea that negroes are dangerous to the State and a nuisance, and measures have to be taken to prevent them from migrating to the territory.

If one swapped “property values” for “territory” the sentiment could come from the quiet admission of a modern realtor. Politics play their part here, but they came from a genuine, deep fear and loathing of black Americans. The James Lane and his westerners felt it more keenly than Charles Robinson and his New Englanders. They had the numbers so they prevailed.

 

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